French has always been flexible and varied, around the world and even within France. In fact, today's French might seem strange to a Parisian from the 1920s! So what will French be like in the next century? We can try to predict the French of tomorrow by observing the variation in French today. 👀 From the introduction of new words, to the retirement of grammar rules, to the evolution of accents, French is bound to change in fascinating ways.
Here are 5 changes we might see in French in 100 years!
🔮 Prediction 1: You are pas going to believe this
Gazing into our linguistic crystal ball, we predict a fascinating change: the disappearance of the negative particle ne. Instead, the humble pas will stand alone as the sole negative particle!
The standard way to make negative verbs in French is to sandwich the verb between ne and pas, as in Je ne sais pas (I don't know). But in casual conversation, people tend to drop the ne and instead say Je sais pas. A century from now, we predict this trend will become the standard, completing a centuries' long evolution of French negation.
There was a time when it was fashionable in French to not just say I didn't eat but to say I didn't eat a single crumb... and those expressions caught on: I didn't see a single dot (in French, point), I didn't drink a single drop (in French, goutte), I didn't walk a single step (in French, pas), etc. For some reason, the pas for "a single step" started being used across the board: I didn't see a single step, I didn't eat a single step, I didn't write a single step, etc. That pas for "a single step" became the regular way to make negative sentences in French… and in the 22nd century, it may fully knock ne out of this negative phrase. 🏆
🔮 Prediction 2: Leaving room for some disagreement
There are also grammatical gender changes afoot in French: We predict that in 100 years, verb participles will no longer agree with the gender of the preceding direct object. (Learners, we heard that sigh of relief!) Today, if the direct object precedes a past-tense verb, the second part of the verb gets an -e if the object is feminine:
- J'ai vu le spectacle. Je l'ai vu. (I saw the performance. I saw it.)
- J'ai vu la voiture. Je l'ai vue. (I saw the car. I saw it.)
However, this agreement is in flux, and French speakers are doing it inconsistently. That's an early sign of language change!
🔮 Prediction 3: A bit more égalité
French might be saying au revoir to making masculine forms the default for women and non-binary people, especially when it comes to professions. Today, it's common to use masculine articles like le (the) and un (a) when referring to people who aren't men, but French has been undergoing a shift for decades. This could mean no longer using le professeur for women professors or le médecin for non-binary doctors. We could be on the cusp of standardizing a new, ungendered pronoun and article in French!
🔮 Prediction 4: Fewer vowels in the future
Another change we might see is among French vowels. There are a couple of pairs of vowels set for a merger—when 2 separate vowels end up being pronounced the same—a common process of language change. In particular, the nasal /ɛ̃/ sound, as in vin (wine), might replace the nasal /œ̃/ sound, as in brun (brown), and many speakers already pronounce "â" as /a/ instead of /ɑ/ (a very subtle difference that has driven generations of French learners to the brink).
Another vowel difference that might not make it another century is the different pronunciations of parlé (spoken) and parlais (used to speak). Traditionally, the "ais" in parlais was pronounced with the vowel sound in English met, but more and more it's being pronounced like the vowel in English mate—the same sound you use for the "é" in parlé!
(You can read more about these International Phonetic Alphabet symbols here!)
🔮 Prediction 5: This one's for you (no, the other you)
Over the next century, the French pronoun system might be in for 2 big changes. First: We predict that tu—the informal pronoun meaning "you"—might expand to more contexts given that vous (the formal pronoun meaning "you") is already losing ground these days.
The second shift in the French pronoun system involves nous, the French word for "we." Today, there is an alternative way to express "we" when it comes to verbs: Instead of saying, nous mangeons (we eat), you can also use on mange (we eat / one eats) in casual situations. The use of on for "we" may become the default "we" pronoun to use with verbs!
But there's another way that nous is on unsteady ground: Many speakers make a distinction between a form of we to mean the speaker and the listener (like for You and I went to the store, and we bought bread) and a slightly different form to indicate the speaker and someone else who isn't the listener (for example, Marie and I went to the store, and we bought bread). This is called an inclusive/exclusive distinction, since it either includes or excludes the listener. In some dialects of Canadian French, nous is used to *include* the listener, while nous autres is for "we" when it excludes the listener. While an inclusive/exclusive distinction is the norm in many languages around the world, it's not considered standard in French… yet!
Our sources say: The future of French is bright!
Peering into the future, we can dream about how French will be in the 22nd century! Clues lie in today's dialects and slang, so understanding language variation might be the best crystal ball around. Change is inevitable—even in language!—so prepare for what lies ahead by reading about what the future holds for Spanish and English.